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Le Mans ’08

In June 2008, I embarked on an adventure to France with two friends to watch ‘Les 24 heures du Mans’, a world-famous car race which lasts 24 hours! Since the age of 8, back in 1990 in the days when the Jaguars were victorious, I’ve made this pilgrimage on a fairly frequent basis. Although my two companions, Paul and Ste, had never been before I insisted that they would really enjoy it and convinced them to book up with me. During the drive down, everything went to plan (including the ferry crossing) and even the fickle French weather was baking. Everything was almost going far too well! I let out a groan though when we arrived in the darkness that was the camp site we planned to stay in (bleu), the same one that my Dad and I used when I last came in 2003. It was full by the time we arrived which was an unexpected problem as last time we had just turned up. After being directed all over the place, we eventually came across some very helpful stewards who guided us to an annex overflow site. I was groaning inside, with the vision of it being awful, but it turned out just fine, even if we did have to pitch a tent in the dark!  My advice to anyone planning on attending in future years would be to book the campsite of your choice well in advance, even though race tickets can always be bought on the door.  Also, if you’re going to arrive at the campsite late, stop off on the way and buy what you need, as the supermarkets in Le Mans close. We were planning to buy beer, and chose to just crack on with the driving, and were disappointed not shops open, and that we couldn’t have a good drink on the night! Nightmare! Unfortunately, our night turned out to be pretty uneventful. This made us determined though to make the most of the following day!

Audi racing down through the esses from the famous Dunlop bridge…

We woke up and hunted the supermarket for booze, gas for our mini stove and some other bits and bobs. We found everything we needed and cooked a mega brekkie back on site. It went down a treat, especially with a nice cool drink or 3! I remember thinking we probably didn’t need gas for the stove as the sun was so hot it could’ve fried the food by itself! The weather was even hotter than the day before!

We arrived at the track just in time for the main race, and after buying our tickets we headed track side, to my favourite spot on the esses to catch a first glimpse of the cars whizzing by – I told Ste and Paul to brace themselves for the din that the Chevrolets made! Unfortunately, we missed the classic race which preceded the main race. Many of the cars I’d watched in years gone past as I was growing up would’ve been in this race, so that was a bit of a shame. Saying this makes me feel very old, but I’m only 26! I was disappointed to find that the organisers had commisioned a grandstand to be built in place of the trees I was so used to sitting beneath (obviously milking the money). It was the best spot too! Ordinary race-goers like myself are now left in the cold, so to speak (even though technically it was over 30° C!). They had compensated somewhat though by building a new banked area over the other side of the track. It had good access but it wasn’t sheltered, which left you open to the full range of Le Mans famed elements! Every time I go they seem to manage to further restrict fans’ views, leaves me questioning whether I want to return again…As first timers though, Paul and Ste thought it was fantastic, and I’m glad it didn’t detract from their enjoyment. I can’t help but find it annoying that our view becomes more and more restricted each time I go, and I have been six times over the past 18 years. One of the plusses though was that we saw a crash right in front of us!

Winner’s podium!

Afterwards, we soaked up the atmosphere, wandering round the stalls on the in-field. We then grabbed a bite to eat before heading back to the campsite for a thirst quenching drink. The mission for the night ahead was on I had attempted twice and failed on both occasions – to sneak track side on the Mulsanne straight (known locally as ‘les hunaudieres’) which is an area of extremely limited access, due to the high speeds. This time I was determined to make it. My dad has made it there before and has some awesome photographs to prove it, and I had to walk in his footsteps. Apparently he ended up standing at the front of somebody’s garden which happened to be track side! Also, there is supposed to be a restaurant/bar, possibly Chinese, that has track side viewing, though I think this must be a myth as I’ve never found the elusive place!

Anyway, we set out on our mission, inebriated from the alcohol(!), late evening on what ended up being an unsuccessful 10 mile trek around the largest track section in search of prime viewing.  We found our way back to camp long after sunrise to get some sleep, just as everyone else was walking in the opposite direction to the track! We ended up missing all of the race as punishment, but the banter was great all the same, and I have some great memories of falling through numerous bushes in the dead of the night!

We were weary and soaked from the rain, but we had a funny night all the same!  Even though we were tired, we couldn’t get much sleep at first. The buzz of the night before hadn’t yet worn off and every time one of us was just dozing off, someone would keep imitating the ‘P-P-P-PEOWNNN!’ sound of the cars passing by! It was funny… for the first 20 times!!! Luckily we awoke at lunch time, just in time to see the last stint of the race. The Audi team of Tom Kristensen were the winners. Tom Kristensen had personally now won the race a record 8 times! They came just ahead of Jacques Villeneuve’s Peugeot team. We joined in the celebrations on the track after the race had finished, then it was time to head back to the car and back home.  The race may not be the same spectacle to me as it once was, it is still special and we had a thoroughly good weekend away.

By Ben Charlton.